The German critic and translator Stefan Moster has characterized the novel as follows (my tr. from German):
She tells the story of a 6 year-old girl who becomes the object of sexual abuse. Peura is not content merely to depict the girl’s traumatic experience and the dreary, almost hermetically sealed environment in which she lives, but puts the emphasis on the reconstruction of the little girl’s inner life. The reader is left in no doubt about the damage to body and mind that is taking place. Yet in spite of the painful theme, a note of hope is also struck at the end: a way out of the traumatic spiral can be glimpsed.The book is also remarkable in being written in a lyrical style that reflects and follows a child's thought-processes, with intevening passages in North Finnish dialect. What follows is a series of excerpts in translation, which hopefully may give readers something of the flavour of the work. As usual, there will be more than one blog post in this series.
Saara, the novel’s main character, is ordered into the care of her grandparents in a remote North Finnish village because her parents are unable to look after her any more. Her father has gone to Norway and her mother is fighting a drink problem. At Granny’s, Saara becomes a victim of her grandfather, a bitter old man who lives with his wife in a sterile marriage, forces Saara to play “games” in which he subjects the child to intolerable forms of abuse. Saara’s means of defence are not sufficient; she draws a circle in the sand and goes to stand in the middle of it: “There’s a border there that Grandpa mustn’t cross. Now let’s play according to my rules. Grandpa’s not allowed to come into the circle, my circle. Only I’m allowed to be in the circle.” But Grandpa repeatedly enters the circle and hurts the girl, who suffers and flees into her own inner world. There is no place that is safe.
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I draw a circle in the sand and go and stand in the middle of it. It has a border that Grandpa is not allowed to cross. Now we’ll play by my rules. Grandpa is not allowed to come into the circle, my circle. Only I'm allowed to be in the circle.
Grandpa likes me more than anything in the world. If I am kind to Grandpa, he will never desert me. He looks after me, Grandpa’s girl, and I promise always to be kind to Grandpa. But when I stand in the circle, Grandpa is not allowed to come inside it.
Grandpa knows the rules, but now he forgets to keep them. He crosses the line, steps inside my circle. I shout that Grandpa’s not allowed inside, but he doesn’t listen, no, no, he comes all the same, steps over me with his boots on, tramples the yellow sunflowers to death. Only blackness remains after Grandpa. Nothing but blackness.
The ground under Grandpa sobs. The tips of Grandpa’s boots dig deep wounds. The ground’s sandy covering is a rag, a circle rubbed deep into the skin. Blood flows onto Grandpa’s coat.
He kicks and laughs, crosses the border lots of times, digs with the tip of his boot, is bad, is bad too long. Less is not enough for Grandpa. He doesn’t go away. He never goes away.
I'll tell Mummy and Daddy. I will definitely, definitely tell them… As soon as they take me home again, I'll tell them about Grandpa and the tips of his boots and Grandpa will be made to feel ashamed and will have to apologize and… no, no, no… Grandpa is old. Old people must be forgiven. If I give Grandpa a row, bad things will happen to me. I am bad bad bad, but old people must be shown respect.
Yet I don’t respect Grandpa. Grandpa can go to hell. He can go to hell, no matter how angry Mummy gets. Mummy doesn’t want me home again. Mummy laughs a nasty laugh and says that I don’t know where hell is. I should go and find out if it’s the sort of place where old Grandpa would feel at home. And I should go quickly, because my words are hurting Mummy’s ears.
Mummy doesn’t hear me or see me and I pack my rucksack and slip out into the hallway and let the house spit me out from its insides. I run down the garden path to the main road. I stick up my thumb and the wind pulls me into the sky, to fly to Grandpa and Granny in hell.
From the side pocket of my rucksack Grandpa fishes out a letter in which Mummy says that Saara is going to live at Granny’s for a little while, at least until Mummy and Daddy have had the house repaired, and that Saara is an obedient girl who likes to please Grandpa and Granny. When Grandpa has read the letter, I ask him to give me back the rucksack, because there’s a Strawberry Trip in it, but Grandpa hangs the rucksack on the hatstand, so high that I can’t reach it.
I've kissed Grandpa, and I don’t want to go and sleep under his arm. As soon as I say NO to Grandpa, another voice inside my head screams YES. It’s Mummy’s voice and I obey Mummy.
I creep in between Grandpa and Granny, though not like Saara, but like a little hedgehog. I point my spikes outwards and curl myself up. I sleep curled up in a tight ball, until Grandpa’s snoring wakes me. Granny wakes up too, and stomps off with her duvet to the other room.
I am alone with Grandpa. The spikes around me melt away. I pretend I’m a hedgehog that is sleeping without any spikes, sleeping quietly in an underground vault. No one can hear. It sinks deeper and deeper inside the earth, and nothing is left of it. Not a scent, not a memory. Nothing. The hedgehog isn’t there. The hedgehog has vanished from around the heart, because the heart is pumping up and down.
The heart cuts into Grandpa’s sleep and he opens his mouth wide. Grandpa’s face is brown and wrinkled. He turns on his side and his face slides away. I press the heart to my lips with my fingers, tell it to be quiet. The heart bites me and a sharp squeal cuts the bedroom’s thick air.
Grandpa turns over. His face comes near. His eyes are closed, but I guess that he is awake, and Grandpa guesses that I'm awake. I suddenly grow new spikes, but they turn thin and flabby. Grandpa laughs at my hedgehog act and, to be on the safe side, I giggle a bit, too. Grandpa is old and his feelings are easily hurt. I put my hand in Grandpa’s rough hair and smooth it a little.
Grandpa's eyelids open. Little sparks glow in Grandpa’s eyes.
‘I’ll show you some games we can play in Granny’s house.’
I don’t want to play games. I gather spittle in my mouth. Perhaps Grandpa will fall asleep if I spit into his eyes and put out the sparks.
Grandpa senses my plan and pulls a mask over his eyes. He looks like an ugly pirate.
I get ready for my dream. I nestle nto the warm space left by Granny. The dream conjures up a salty sea. I take the form of a ship and a big white sail carries me from wave to wave. I sway in the sea’s embrace, until the wind dies down and the grandpa pirate takes hold of the ship, throws the anchor down to the sandy bottom and steps into the hold.
A hand presses my face into the pillow. I bite the pillow to shreds and shout with my mouth full of feathers that it hurts, hurts more than having my ears pierced, more than being sick, more than ever. I shout to the ship’s crew for help. I shout to them to throw me a lifeboat, but the feathers muffle my voice, and no one can hear me. I am alone, at Grandpa’s mercy.
Grandpa’s mercy hurts. I toss about there, until Grandpa loosens his grip and a bad, fusty smell spreads into the hold. I run to the side in order to breathe sea air. The grandpa pirate puffs close behind me, grabs me with slimy hands. I slip out of his grasp, leap into the lifeboat and start to row.
The wind gets up, makes the waves grow big. Grandpa’s ship sucks me closer and closer, back to the fusty smell. The strength goes out of my arms. The oars come loose from the boat, drift far into the sea. I think about Mummy’s nightdress. The pain spread into it, vanished, went away. I tell the nightdress to come now, wrap itself around me, take the pain away, cover up the pain.
The nightdress stays where it is. I swallow a sob deep inside me. After all, I'm big and strong. I’m not at all as weak and wretched as Grandpa, who takes off his pirate’s mask when the game is over and bursts into tears. I press the duvet into Grandpa’s face and the surf stays there.
‘You smell good,’ Grandpa sighs.
Grandpa is telling a lie. Grandpa's not allowed to say nice things about me. Grandpa must be quiet. I press my lips against Grandpa’s lips. Grandpa sticks his tongue out. I press my lips together and swallow sea water.
Grandpa’s rough hand scratches my tummy and thighs, lightly smooths my poppy, wipes the wounds away. Grandpa also strokes my hair and my eyes and my head and the sea wind blows in my face, until I fall into the warm waves of the dream, caressed by the sea. The salt smarts and burns from the deep. The shore is quite close. With a few kicks I could be there, in safety, but I don’t want to go.
translated from Finnish by David McDuff